Migrare: A Meditation in Three Movements
Dickcissel, Spiza americana, as viewed through a
scope along the Rio Madeira in Brazil.
Photo by Mario Cohn-Haft.
Awhile ago, a poster to a birding listserv I follow launched a weekend’s worth of discussion with a sudden claim:
Without actually using the word “patriotism,” the post spoke wistfully of “the uniquely American birding culture” that was in danger of being outsourced and one-upped, like, he said, American “science, engineering and manufacturing excellence.” Thus he championed what some birders dismiss as “vagrant chasing” in order to claim a sighting on U.S. soil, rather than setting foot across the political border to see the species in its own home range. The international birding community who frequent the virtual space of the listserv pounced on this and the conversation set me thinking.
Most years in spring I travel north from my home in Kansas to the Platte River in central Nebraska to pitch a tent in the sandy soil of an ancient floodplain. Mornings and evenings the chill air seems to shake with the calls of Sandhill cranes. In the blind on the riverbank at dusk, we watch the birds whiffling down from the sky, a dangling-legged fall from flight. Each autumn, in the sun-filled days of September, monarch butterflies move through the world where I live, their bright orange wings like impossibly delicate stained-glass panels poised on the honeysuckle or weaving in flight like toddlers in no hurry to actually arrive. Hanging laundry on the line, walking to work, my movements briefly intersect with theirs.
Arrivals and departures, the pace of the world rolling through time. It’s deeply satisfying to find oneself placed in conjunction with these larger cycles, in the temporal music of planetary refrains.
But if we examine the word’s etymology, much of the reassurance disappears. From classical Latin, migrare signifies simply to change one’s residence or position, to pass into a new condition or form; the certainty of changing and then changing back disappears. And there’s likely an ancient connection to mutare, from which we derive mutation, a change from which there’s rarely any going back.
Early for our appointment, the study abroad group lounged in the concrete-walled hallway while outside the heat of the Amazonian midafternoon squeezed everything in its undifferentiating grip. We were on the other side of the equator. And we were full from lunch, drowsy in the humidity that, like gravity itself, seemed to pull us into stasis. Occasionally someone at work in the building would pass through and we’d try to move out of the way. “Bom dia”: we’d offer our accent-clad rendition of the Portuguese greeting. When our day’s host, Mario Cohn-Haft, arrived, we hoisted ourselves back onto our feet and followed him into the cramped room housing the bird collection at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus, Brazil. While we squeezed around the work table and leaned against the walls, Cohn-Haft, the collection’s curator, stood in front of the cabinets of bird skins. Just above his right shoulder we glimpsed a stuffed harpy eagle, a creature that, in life, snatches sloths from the upper branches of rainforest trees. The glass-eyed gaze of this one seemed trained on Cohn-Haft’s face.
Dickcissel in the hand of a researcher.
Photo by Mario Cohn-Haft.
Based on DNA studies, researchers extrapolate that there may be 3,000 bird species in the Amazon region; roughly 1,300 have been scientifically described. Some are genetically isolated populations, endemic to small patches of habitat the borders of which are formed by the innumerable rivers that drain and flood the varzea forests. Others are migrants who breed in North America and winter over in the constant-summer heat near the equator. Examples of both now reside in the stillness of the collection, eyes and bodies stuffed with cotton, handwritten tags identifying precisely the time and place of their deaths.
The screaming piha, surely the loudest bird in the forest, opens its throat and jerks back its head as if, like a snake, it’s trying to swallow the enormous sound of its wolf-whistle call. A previously undescribed jay found in white-sand pockets of savanna habitat surrounded by tall rainforest. Silver-beaked tanagers, indigenous creatures under pressure from invasive cowbirds. A potoo, also previously unknown to science, that makes a nocturnal whistle on moonlit nights as if it has winged in from a Brazilian myth about the curupira, a trickster-protector of the forest who also whistles when the moon is out. This last bird is an especially potent symbol: its mythic namesake hides in the enormous buttresses of the tauari tree. When people harm the forest, it is said, the curupira casts a disorienting spell on them; as they wander, sweating and insect-bitten, they can be even further confused by the trickster’s backward-facing footprints. Where are you now? You lost your way, didn’t you?
Among all these wonders, I was most drawn to a familiar bird—the dickcissel, Spiza americana. It’s a grassland species that nests throughout the prairies remaining in the northern continent. A three-color range map shows huge swaths of nesting territory from Manitoba to Texas, from eastern Colorado to Ohio. Slender stretches of migratory range ring the Gulf of Mexico like gold-sand beaches. In winter, the birds extend along the western edge of Central America and across the top of the southern continent, mostly in Venezuela and Guyana, but also in extreme northern Brazil’s state of Roraima (“Green Plateau” in the Tupi language).
The range map does not include a particular island in the Madeira River, maybe 200 miles south of Manaus. But that is where Cohn-Haft found one.
“We were working the middle Madeira from a big boat. I took an outboard to the island to check it out briefly,” he told me. It was early morning, before the real heat of the day. At a latitude just five degrees south of the equator, on a river more than a mile wide in the midst of the unroaded, unfragmented rainforest, midday heat can seem to alchemize parts of your body to lead. (The sun can also burn your skin right through your shirt, as I learned after a bright morning walk on a sandy river beach.)
He heard the bird before he saw it. What was that? A song remembered from the northern continent (Cohn-Haft grew up in the United States), transported weirdly to the equatorial forest. Dick, dick-dick. Cissel.
In June, throughout the northern continent, the sound drowns out other breeding birds. Riding my bike through unplowed Kansas ranchland, I often hear their calls flung upward along the barbed-wire fence lines. From perches in their established territories, males spend much of the day singing, one song every few seconds, nearly incessant until sometime in mid-summer. For the birds, it’s as if song helps transform space into place—they only sing within their own territory. And though the songs are all composed of the same basic elements—“dick” and “ciss” phrases—researchers find that there are variations. Individual birds differ in the number of each component they string together in song, though each bird seems quite consistent in the type he favors. One study has identified “distinct vocal neighborhoods”: males in close proximity to one another share the same version of the song. Accents map their access to their summer home.
Dickcissel habitat on an island in the Rio Madeira,
Photo by Mario Cohn-Haft.
By comparison, little is known about their lives in the months they spend in the south. Do they sing outside their breeding grounds? Not usually, said Cohn-Haft; at least, that’s true of most northern migrants during their time in the south. I found a report from 1950, however, of a male dickcissel wintering in Connecticut who “sang frequently and with zeal, especially on stormy days.” More recently, Derek Schook and his colleagues studying the birds in Kansas grasslands reported that second-year males seem to learn their song type from older birds as soon as they return from their first winter in the south. “Song tutors,” the researchers called the senior singers. In their first week or so back in the north, the youngsters are mostly silent, listening, learning.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the birds’ seasonal arrivals and departures were charted across the western hemisphere, and the sounds of their songs transcribed. By the time Arthur Cleveland Bent was collecting them in his Life Histories, he could draw on more than eight decades’ worth of observations, many from men and women with whom he corresponded. I like to consider these letter writers—usually people who had dedicated a great deal of personal energy to following birds—and how the pattern of their own movement and concerns are implicit in the way they report on their subjects.
Scottish immigrant Alexander Wilson called the bird the black-throated bunting and transcribed the syllables “chip chip che che ché.” Twenty-eight years old when he left Renfrewshire for the United States, Wilson might have sounded like the heavily accented bartender who once served me a leathery hamburger in a tiny Scottish pub. That young man was also trying to imagine a way to a different life.
Perley Milton Silloway transcribed the songs of breeding males he observed in Illinois “quick, quick, sell sell sell,” while Indiana zoologist Amos W. Butler likened the call to “the noise made by dropping six silver dollars, one upon the other, into one’s hand: clenk, clenk, clenk-clenk-clenk.” About the time he made this observation, he was secretary of the Indiana Board of State Charities, which could have influenced his metaphoric thinking.
Bent himself described how the predation of a female, and the resultant death of the young, never broke her mate’s determined song. “One morning as I watched a female returning to her nest with a beakful of food for her five-day-old young, a sharpshinned hawk appeared out of nowhere and carried her off. Her mate seemingly paid no attention to the tragedy enacted in front of him but continued singing from his regular post nearby. He continued to sing the rest of that day, and the next two days, while the young slowly starved to death.” Quick, quick, sell sell sell. And yet Bent also noted that the singer’s “earnestness and persistence are traits we are compelled to admire.”
I do admire them, and I feel a thrill of connection when I come across the same bird, the same song, the same fencepost or clump of concealing grass. I think I’ve taken these birds as sources of psychological encouragement, totems of the spirit. Months after the birds have dispersed to their wintering grounds, I keep thinking about my own conjunctions with their travels. I’m troubled that the world’s southernmost dickcissel is silent and stiff, a specimen in the research collection. I respect the scholarly function of such collections and have even helped prepare a study skin myself—washing the body of a heron, cleansing away the remaining bits of fat and flesh with cornmeal, visiting care on its diminished corpse. But I regret the image and fact of the collected creature stuffed and tagged in the territory of research.
Dickcissel specimen and Birds of Brazil book.
Photo by Elizabeth Dodd.
My brother is now an emigrant. That’s not the term he uses: he says immigrant, emphasizing the state of arrival, not departure. After years of working in the Pacific Northwest as an environmental activist, trying both to save the ancient forests and to elect public officials for whom ecological health is a policy imperative, he’s given up on the United States, I think. And I can see why. He and his wife have tried to be deliberate, thoughtful, in choosing a new home in New Zealand. He’s landed a job, the first he applied for: general manager of a sanctuary dedicated to protecting native species against the destructive predators and pests imported from elsewhere—rats and opossums, especially. The project’s website promises the 1,800 acres or so of protected space will result in “a forest alive with birdsong.” One of his first tasks will be overseeing construction of a pest-proof barrier designed to keep out non-native species. The Fence, it’s called simply, though I hear an ironic resonance with U.S. Homeland Security and the concrete and steel stabbed into the Sonoran desert. The Fence will weave across the landscape for nearly nine miles, carefully avoiding rare tree species, and is expected to cost over $4 million, not all of which has yet been raised. Clenk, clenk, clenk-clenk-clenk.
I look at photographs of birds the sanctuary promises to protect, such as the South Island robin, quite different from the American robins in my back yard—it looks like a warbler, not a thrush. My brother sends quick notes about the landscape—the view their rental house commands of both mountains and bay—so much like their old coastal town in Washington, lovely in both familiarity and novelty.
Do you see my mind’s movement, wearing a pathway through repeated thought? Browsing in the BirdChat listserv, corresponding with my brother on the other side of the world, I keep imagining that moment on the Brazilian island, the dickcissel’s ill-placed song in the humid rainforest air. Of course, I’m personifying, despite my best efforts to get the details right, to consider the facts. Of course, I’m bathing the image in sentiment, in the sense of my own time and place, my own concerns, even though I know there are limits and inconsistencies in my heart’s wielding of metaphor—oh, I can’t help it. Did the bird have some hormonal imbalance that urged him into breeding-season calls? Disoriented, confused, had he lost his way, and as if to buck himself up, was singing brashly about home? Or was the movement south a bold adaptation in response to shrinking winter habitat in Roraima’s green plateau or Venezuela’s agricultural fields? Was that silenced bird just the first to arrive? Even now, the staccato calls of dickcissels might be sounding over the island.
Amid so much wreckage in modernity’s economic conceits—empire, nationalism, globalism—the very concept of movement is fraught. Indigenous; non-native; invasive; endemic; expanding range; shrinking habitat: our understanding of world’s biogeography is a confusing patchwork of local and global. Changing climate will mean displacement of various species, including humans. Migration may be an increasingly necessary adaptive strategy, though many of our own such travels have been disastrous for the worlds we’ve entered.
I’m nearly breathless as my brother tells me again about his interview. He was a dark horse applicant, newcomer, a Yank. It took the sanctuary’s trustees an agonizingly long time to make up their minds: go with the outsider or a local, known candidate?
“In the end,” he says, “they decided to take the leap with me.”
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